The Cultural Cold War

by Frances Stonor Saunders

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Last Updated September 5, 2023.

The Cultural Cold War: The CIA and the World of Arts and Letters is an investigative history by filmmaker Frances Stonor Saunders, of the CIA's program to finance a propaganda campaign against Soviet Communism in the cultural sphere beginning in the immediate post-WWII period. To this end, the agency laundered money through philanthropic organizations such as the Ford Foundation, the Rockefeller Foundation, and the Congress for Cultural Freedom, the last headed by Michael Josselson.

This effort involved support for concerts, art exhibitions, as well as ballet and theater companies, intended to suggest that the United States placed as high a premium on cultural values as did the European nations which America hoped to retain as political allies throughout the Cold War. African American performers, in particular, were often sent on foreign tours to deflect criticism from evidence of racial injustice in the United States.

The CIA's influence was perhaps clearest in the case of the numerous literary and political publications it financed, including "Encounter," "Paris Review," "Partisan Review," and "The New Leader," among the most influential. Indeed, it was not unusual to find agency employees, such as Peter Matthiessen, in their offices; a founder of the "Paris Review," he later admitted to having been a CIA case officer.

Among the names to be found in "Encounter," for example, were some of the most significant in the intellectual life of the period, but also reliable exponents of the democratic or left anti-Stalinism favored by the CIA: George Orwell, Hannah Arendt, Arthur Koestler, Ignazio Silone, and Isiah Berlin. However, the magazine also featured a number of equally distinguished figures, including W.H. Auden, Jorge Borges, Robert Lowell, Vladimir Nabokov, and others, whose work can't be easily reduced to political sloganeering. What is clear is that certain subjects, such as American racism, were mentioned only sotto voce, in its pages, and the imperialistic adventures of the United States, such as the overthrow of the governments of Iran and Guatemala, not at all.

The CIA's clandestine involvement in the realm of culture was finally revealed in the late 1960s, a few years before the Agency's acknowledgment of much more serious crimes in the course of the Church Committee hearings. In both, the absence of transparency represented a tragically flawed vision of governance in a constitutional democracy.

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